Walls that have historically protected workers from sharing more of the financial burden for health services may have also helped to block knowledge about how much their choices actually cost. Cracks now seem to be appearing in some of those bastions — large labor unions. Whether those openings will help to throw light on the subject remains to be seen.
At General Electric, unions staged a two-day strike last month over the company's insistence that workers pay more for health care. In addition, other major industries face similar labor unrest over coverage. U.S. automakers and the United Auto Workers union, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and trucking companies, will also be negotiating this year.
"Rising health care costs mean that health care benefits and who should pay for the increases are going to be an issue in almost every set of negotiations until those increases disappear," Rick Banks, director of collective bargaining for the AFL-CIO, tells the Washington Post. "And that's not going to happen anytime soon."
GE officials say that the company increased employee copayments by about $200 per person on Jan. 1. Those increases include a $10 rise for specialist visits to $25 per visit, and a new $150 copayment for inpatient hospital care.
Overall costs to GE workers will increase about 20 percent from the current $1,000 a year. The company says that its health care costs have increased about 45 percent from 1999 to 2002 ($965 million to $1.4 billion).
Companies expect health care costs to rise 14.6 percent this year, according to a recent poll by Mercer Human Resource Consulting.
As a result of such forecasts, many businesses are testing the limits of how much of the increase they can pass off to workers.
"From the point of view of many unions, what they see is an unraveling of what it has taken many decades to put together, which is the employer paying most of the cost of benefits," Harley Shaiken, a professor specializing in labor issues at the University of California at Berkeley, tells the Post.